Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen vs. Dylan’s Tarantula

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01/30/2013 by Stephen Silke

Tarantula

“I don’t believe you!”

Two unlikely books are the subject of this post. First, I’ll comment on how unfair it is. It is unfair. That these books would ever be compared is very unlikely so that’s why I’m doing it–yet, both poets stand very well up to the tests of time. Dylan is the greatest American artist yet to emerge in any genre. Baudelaire is legendary and has transcended French letters into the realm of the greatest poets in the world. So if their poetry is good, then it’s good. Let’s see.

Tarantula and Paris Spleen are similar in design. Both contain poems and verse. Tarantula is an epistolary novel that alternates free verse and poetry within each missive, while Paris Spleen offers us what today we would call flash fiction, plus some “bonus” poems tacked onto the end.

It should be said that Dylan’s work was never formally completed. At least he never outright approved a final draft, though he did sign off on it in 1971. In contrast, Baudelaire made much of the completion of his work, if not the actual workmanship in his offering. His letter to Arsène Houssaye has been published along with the text in my edition, and in this way Baudelaire can apologize for its style, which diverges from his typical poems. Where Dylan maintained the ability to dismiss the book by treating his blue lines with disregard, we are sure that Baudelaire’s work was acceptable and finished.

Tarantula is cute and clever, a collection of one-liners buried amidst much doggerel. The work is stylized by its non-comformist punctuation and an idiosyncratic street-conscious grammar style. It serves up a peculiar vision of doped-up street slang, putting off everything a square would want in a book, giving the reader nothing more than a chain of words to get her high and make her giggle.

Like Richard Brautigan, criticized in 1971 for not “turning everyone on” for the $2 admission fee to a reading at the San Francisco State College Poetry Center (he responded that he wasn’t “an improvisational actor”), we could criticize Dylan’s book for taking the complete opposite tact. Tarantula works only within its own free associations and does not often enough present conscionable signifiers. I’ll even go so far to say that here Dylan, in direct opposition to Brautigan, is only acting.

Sure, these were only meant for your buddy Arsene.

Sure, these were only meant for your buddy Arsene.

Each prose vignette in Paris Spleen has been carefully crafted and feels complete, even if it lacks head or tail–Baudelaire’s self criticism. If the stories are tight and well crafted, they are that way to open up each little piece of writing for expansive interpretation. They could be considered allegory, and I’m sure be taken as such and ran with, but they also live in their own worlds and do not require parallels in order for them to mean something.

In the vignette “The Poor Child’s Toy” two boys meet eyes and treasure the same toy, a dirty pet rat, and Baudelaire ends the story with the treasure of a natural image–they “laugh … together like brothers with teeth of identical whiteness.” It is the natural image that is the appropriate symbol that unites the two boys in spite of any socio-economic boundaries which moments before existed–the same kind of natural image that was so important to Ezra Pound and one of his prerequisites for acceptable poetry. We see that the boys, at heart, are identical, but for the costuming of this world.

In that short fiction work, Baudelaire tears down artifice, but throughout Tarantula Dylan builds it up into an impermeable wall. The masterful poetic delivery that he reached in his best songs is not present in the book, but Dylan’s voice did make it through: “Zonk hated himself & when he got too high he thought everybody was a mirror.” Lines like this are clever, but the multiplicity of “voices” and the aimless scattershot namedropping popular with ’60s poets who now fill the faculties of our state-funded universities, keeps the text grounded in a classic period of Americana and thus are consequently stuck in a specific American pop epoch. People who love all things ’60s will no doubt love the book, but these same quaint references which ground the text in a time and place, work to limit Tarantula and prevent it from entering the territory of a universally relevant work of art. Dylan uncharacteristically flounders for suitable text:

i don’t care what bob hope says — he

aint going with you nowhere — also, john

wayne mightve kicked cancer, but you

oughta see his foot — forget about those

hollywood people telling you what to do —

theyre all gonna get killed by the indians —

see you in your dreams

                          lovingly,

                          plastic man

But Baudelaire pulls out daggers addressing the foibles of his day and age. His flash fiction “The Dog and the Scent-Bottle” curries revenge (in three short paragraphs) on all of the critics who denied his work. Additionally, the short story “Already!” is one of the finest I’ve ever read, an exceptionally written reflection on returning from a journey. It describes the longings of a romantic married to travel, resisting the inevitability of returning to shore after a long journey. This story will leave your head spinning with well-crafted sentences and a consideration of what it is to be at sea, and the mysterious perils of land-lubbing.

Dylan’s book will turn your brain to mush if you try to engage on anything more than a superficial level, but Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen is rich fare and rewards rereading, and I’ll enjoy my Dylan through his music and in his recordings.

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